by Jiayi Ying
I am seven years old. Grandma, Grandpa, Dad, and I are standing on the platform at the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station. It’s early—6am—and we’re waiting for the train to arrive to take us to Brussels, from where we’ll connect to another train that will take us to Luxembourg City. The scarves around our necks and the hats on our heads keep us warmed, but there’s something about the fresh coldness of the early morning that leaves us restless, makes our bodies bounce in place to their own beats. We stand under the white glow of moonlight, which seems to dilute just a little more every time I look at it.
Like us, the sky is only just waking up.
“The train must be delayed,” my dad says, in Chinese, to my grandparents. He looks at the schedule, locked inside a plastic case on the wall, to confirm his hunch, but the paper doesn’t return any new information. Our train that’s supposed to leave at 6:18 is still nowhere in sight at 6:16.
“Aandacht alsjeblieft,” the voice of a train station operator blares through the overhead announcer. “Voor de trein naar Brussel deze morgen,” he says, a static crinkle stroking his flow of words, “het platform is veranderd naar platform zeven.”
“Vanwege deze reden, de trein vertrekt om zes vierentwentig nu. Als uw vandaag naar Brussel gaat, ga dan naar platform negen nu. De trein vertrekt in acht minuten.” He pauses before concluding, “Dit is het laatste bericht, dit is het laatste bericht.”
I stand on the platform, not sure what to do. When else did he announce this? And how many trains are going to Brussels this morning? My dad, who has lived in Belgium the longest out of all of us, survives without needing to know Dutch. In medical research, he says, everyone knows English. It is on me.
“I think,” I say, in a meek voice in Chinese, “that the train is on a different platform. He,” I point at the concrete above, “just said platform seven.”
“Is it our train?” my grandpa asks.
“He didn’t say a number. Just the train to Brussels.”
“As long as it goes to Brussels,” my dad says. “Are you sure it’s going there?”
His asking makes me doubt. “Yes,” I say hesitantly. A small uncertainty gathered like a dust ball inside me—did I dream it? “He said Brussels.”
We ran to platform 7 and got on the waiting train. It took us where we needed to go. On the ride there, my grandparents boasted with pride and disbelief. Without me, they kept saying, we’d still be standing on that empty platform, waiting for a train that would never come. “Ayah,” my dad said, with a sigh, “None of us can understand.” A streak of amusement and feeble regret lingered in his voice. At once, I felt a sense of age, of respect. Is this how grownups feel? To have people do things by your word.
We spent the day in Luxembourg City, walking around aimlessly and posing for pictures in front of elaborate castles.
That afternoon, on our way to the train station, my grandma slipped on a metal cellar door on the sidewalk. She tried to break her fall and ended up snapping her right wrist. Back home, at the hospital, she had a titanium plate nailed across where the bones disconnected to hold the two pieces together so that they could grow back into one.
I am twenty-one years old, visiting Xi’an with my mom and sister. It’s summer vacation and, my dad, in the middle of a research project, could not claim, as we could, the time off as his right.
This morning, my fourth great-aunt—Grandma’s youngest sister—called to invite us over to her apartment. Earlier this year, her son had stayed with my family for three days, a detour in his trip through Europe. “Your fourth great-aunt wants to treat you, because your uncle said your mom’s cooking saved him,” Grandma said, with a laugh, as she announced the day’s plans she’d made for us. “He could not get used to any of the food in France.”
I nod, even though I wasn’t there. “Do you remember him?” my grandma asks.
“I don’t,” I say sheepishly, guiltily.
“You were too young,” she says. The last time I saw him was right before I left China, at five years old, and even then it was brief and sporadic, at a big family gathering. He knows what I look like now, Grandma tells me, because of the pictures my mom showed him. I nod and smile. I have no idea what he looks like now. Or before.
“How are we going to get there?” my mom asks. There’s five of us with my grandpa. We’d need two taxis.
“I can take one with Joyce,” I say, confident and eager. At twenty-one and fourteen, neither of us are kids.
My mom dismisses the idea. “You don’t know where Fourth Great-Aunt’s house is,” she shoots back, matter of fact, at me.
“I can write down the address,” my grandma says. She gets up from the couch and walks towards her bedroom. Her voice raised, she tells the story about when she and Grandpa visited us in Belgium and we were going to Luxembourg.
She comes back with a piece of paper, an edge of it raw from being torn off, and a pen. With her left hand, which she trained after her fall, she writes a string of characters and, with her right, she hands the note to me. “This,” she says, pointing to what she wrote, “is your great-aunt’s address. This,” a second line, “is our address.”
I look at it, none of it recognizable. She sees the blank look on my face.
“Ayah,” she says, with a sincere smile. “I forget that you can’t read Chinese anymore.”
Jiayi Ying lives in Brooklyn, NY.